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Elements of a healthy diabetes diet

Focus on Diabetes
ISSUE #1 OF 6 IN AN E-MAIL SERIES
Harvard Medical School

Elements of a healthy diabetes diet


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Weight loss should be your first goal when it comes to managing diabetes. Whatever strategy you choose for this — whether it’s low carb, high-protein, or something else — it’s important to make healthy choices. This will help you control your diabetes, your blood pressure, and your cholesterol while also giving your body what it needs for a long and healthy life.

One way to do this is to follow the strategy set out in the Healthy Eating Plate developed by nutrition experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The advice is simple and straightforward.

  1. Divide your plate in half.

  2. Fill one side with vegetables (preferably non-starchy ones) and fruits.

  3. Fill the other side with whole grains and healthy protein.

  4. Minimize refined grains such as white rice and white bread, from which fiber has been removed.

  5. Choose healthier protein sources, such as fish, poultry, and beans, instead of processed meats like bacon and cold cuts.

  6. Use healthy oils.

Diabetes

In this report, you’ll learn about the components of a healthy diet for people with diabetes, as well as how to work with a dietitian, how to develop a meal plan, and how to fit physical activity into your schedule. You will learn how to recognize portion distortion, make wise choices while dining out, and stay on track with your weight-loss plan. Best of all, we’ve included 40 original recipes so you can put this advice into practice — starting today.

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Nutrition research is increasingly exploring connections between eating patterns and health. A healthy eating pattern should help you lose weight and control your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. It should also be good for your heart, your brain, and every other part of your body. Here are some common eating patterns of special importance to people with diabetes that closely follow recommendations on diet from the American Diabetes Association.

Vegetarian. Vegetarians eat mostly food from plants. Some include milk and other dairy foods (lacto vegetarian), while others include eggs (ovo vegetarian) or both dairy and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarian). Some even allow for a little bit of animal protein within an overall plant-based diet. Though this doesn’t strictly count as vegetarian, people sometimes call themselves vegetarian if they eat mainly vegetarian but with a little chicken (pollo vegetarian), fish (pesco vegetarian), or the occasional serving of red meat, chicken, or fish (flexitarian). Clinical trials have shown that vegetarian diets may be better than traditional low-fat diets for helping people with type 2 diabetes control blood sugar and cholesterol.

Vegan. Vegans eat only food from plants. They do not consume any animal products or byproducts. That means no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy foods, such as yogurt or cheese. In a 2015 review of vegan diets and diabetes, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers found that, like vegetarian diets, traditional vegan diets improve blood glucose and cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes better than standard low-fat diets.

Mediterranean-type. In the 1950s and 1960s, nutrition research pioneer Ancel Keys and his colleagues studied eating patterns in 16 different populations in seven countries. They observed that people living in Crete, other parts of Greece, and southern Italy tended to live longer than others in the study and had lower rates of heart disease and some cancers. Keys was convinced that the regional diets, together dubbed the Mediterranean diet, were an important reason for the good health in those populations. Over the past four decades, studies have shown that a Mediterranean-type diet can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions. There’s no such thing as the Mediterranean diet, since more than a dozen countries — each with distinct foods and dietary habits — border the Mediterranean Sea. Here are the general features of a Mediterranean-type dietary pattern:

  • plant foods as the main source of calories: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes (like beans, peas, and lentils), with a preference for foods that are fresh and minimally processed to preserve nutrients

  • olive oil as the main source of fat

  • low to moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt with meals

  • moderate amounts of fish and poultry as the preferred sources of animal protein; minimal amounts of red meat

  • fresh fruit with meals instead of desserts

  • for those who drink alcohol, wine consumed in low to moderate amounts (no more than two glasses a day for men or one a day for women), usually with meals.

DASH. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) trial, done in the 1990s, showed a substantial reduction in blood pressure from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods, and with reduced sodium, saturated fat, and total fat. In several small trials among people with type 2 diabetes, a DASH approach has been shown to help control blood sugar, blood pressure, and other cardiovascular risk factors. You can find information about the DASH diet at www.health.harvard.edu/dash.

Look AHEAD. This important trial didn’t examine a specific eating pattern. Instead, nutritionists helped participants create meals and snacks that each day delivered enough calories for good health and weight loss (1,200 to 1,800 calories a day). Fat provided less than 30% of calories, while protein provided more than 15%. Participants were also encouraged to replace one or two meals or snacks a day with alternatives such as portion-controlled shakes, bars, or meals that contained 150 to 220 calories. Those who used meal replacements had better diet quality and lost more weight than those who didn’t.

Any healthy eating pattern should spread meals evenly over the course of the day: breakfast after you wake up; lunch in the middle of the day; dinner or supper toward the end of the day, but not too close to bedtime; a snack or two if needed in between meals. Missing a meal often means eating extra food later, which can lead to a big spike in blood glucose and put extra pressure on the pancreas to make insulin.

Featured in this issue

Product Page - Diabetes Read More

Healthy Eating for Type 2 Diabetes

Featured content:

Understanding diabetes
The first-line treatment: Weight loss
The elements of a healthy diet
Meal-planning basics
SPECIAL BONUS SECTION: Healthy recipes
•  … and more!

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Harvard Medical School offers special reports on over 60 health topics.
Visit our website at http://www.health.harvard.edu to find reports of interest to you and your family.

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